Personal and economic wellbeing: three things the ONS data tells us
For the first time, this week the Office for National Statistics released the latest personal wellbeing data, alongside their indicators for economic wellbeing. Our Head of Evidence, Deborah Hardoon, explored the results and finds three things things that stand out.
The personal wellbeing data comes from surveys which ask people directly how they feel about their lives, while the economic wellbeing indicators adjust or supplement the traditional catch-all measure of Gross Domestic Product. By publishing the two data sets together, we get a better understanding of how the country’s economic performance is experienced by people and households in the UK.
1. Wellbeing has levelled off, while debt risk rises, and economic optimism falls
It’s a mixed picture, at both national and personal levels. The main measures of personal wellbeing have been steadily increasing since 2012, but have now levelled off, as has the country’s net financial wealth and income.
However, the economic data also shows that on average we are spending beyond our means, with unsecured lending growing faster than disposable income. This is a warning sign for future financial precarity, which has an important effect on our wellbeing.
This is also reflected in people’s optimism for the future of the economy declining since 2014, and a decline in how people feel about their own financial prospects falling since the last quarter.
2. Unemployment is down, but job satisfaction has fallen while over-employment is up
The release draws attention to the continued decline in unemployment, which has coincided with a small increase in life satisfaction since 2012 ‘in line with the strengthening of the labour market’.
However, while unemployment rates have improved, job satisfaction which is included in the broader wellbeing framework, has dropped slowly from 61% in 2009/10 to 55% in 2016/17 of people saying they are mostly or completely satisfied with their job.
The report also finds that there has been an increase – to 3.3 million – of the number of people who are over employed, that is wanting to work fewer hours. This finding helps to emphasise the importance of addressing job quality, which includes flexibility and working conditions, through for example the voluntary measures on disability, mental health and wellbeing in the workplace proposed by Department for Work and Pensions, the development of national measures for good work and the numerous interventions being explored by employers which can enhance job satisfaction.
We know that our employment status and the quality of our work are important for our wellbeing, so understanding what is happening in the labour market is key to the relationship between economic performance and personal wellbeing at the national level.
3. More analysis at the individual and household level would help us to understand the relationship between people with different experiences of the economy and their wellbeing outcomes
National economic data tells us what is happening at the aggregate level. This hides the reality for individuals and households and their different experiences of the economic and wellbeing data. As the economic data isn’t broken down by different populations groups and areas and because it isn’t linked at the individual or household level to personal wellbeing outcomes – we can’t directly see how different economic experiences relate to different personal wellbeing outcomes, we can only infer it.
We can infer, for example, that the rise in unsecured loans and utility bills at the national level is likely to have the biggest impact on people with low incomes, whilst the importance of non-financial wealth would likely show up as a benefit to homeowners. There is already a good body of evidence which tells us that income is important for wellbeing both at the individual and national level, but only to some extent. More analysis on the impact of other economic variables on our personal wellbeing in terms of how different experiences with the economy affect different people in the UK.